Various Unmentionables

I was driving north in a car with a man that clearly I knew, though I couldn’t place him. It was some kind of escape, a getaway. We needed a place to stay for the night and so we stopped with some friends of his, just beyond the border. There was a teenage boy doing his homework at the kitchen table, and upstairs, a very young girl child, asleep. We were given a bed for the night, and as darkness fell, I suddenly realised that I knew how this story ended. It ended with a stranger slipping into the house and knifing all the inhabitants, except for me. How did I avoid the massacre? I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe if I rolled out of bed and hid beneath it, I could pass unnoticed, but then I would have to witness what happened next.

A sane voice spoke to me, saying. I think this is a dream? And if this is a dream, maybe you want to wake up now? Because I really don’t like the road we’re on.

I  came to; darkness in the room, but definitely in my own bed. The clock said 3.15 am. I lay back and started playing Julie Andrews on the soundtrack inside my head, singing ‘My Favourite Things’ as a soothing technique. Mr Litlove was stirring. ‘It was just a nightmare,’ I told him. ‘Do you want to tell me what it was about?’ he asked. I thought about lying in the silent darkness with one anxious brain cell functioning, describing knife-wielding maniacs. ‘It was so bad, I don’t even want to,’ I replied. ‘Uh,’ said Mr Litlove.

I should point out here that Mr Litlove has mastered the art of talking to me in his sleep. In the morning, he has no recollections of what he has said. At that point I realised what else was odd: I didn’t have my mouthguard in. This much-detested contraption came about because I bruised a nerve in my gum one night, an experience I have no desire to repeat so I put up with the mouthguard despite the fact that it is too big for my mouth and hateful. I felt about on my bedside table, but it wasn’t there. So I really wondered what I’d done with it. Had I maybe thrown it across the room? I judged my subconscious was wholly capable of such an act.

‘Now what’s the matter?’ Mr Litlove asked. ‘I’ve taken out my mouthguard and I can’t find it,’ I told him. ‘Well I think you’d know if you’d swallowed it,’ he said, a statement that amused him greatly when I repeated it to him in the morning. I put my hand straight down on the duvet and there it was. This was good news; if this was the kind of night my brain was having, I felt that teeth-grinding might well be a part of it.

I am 46 going on 47 and the perimenopause is a reality. There has been a notable increase in nightmares these past few months, and if my chronic fatigue is worse, I think my hormones have a lot to do with it. Fatigue, anxiety, poor sleep, muscle aches and brain fog are all perimenopausal symptoms, and they are chronic fatigue symptoms too. So I feel like I’m getting a double dose. But what I also notice is that this isn’t something that women are allowed to talk about much. It’s not a cultural story, even though every woman alive will go through this rite of passage. And it’s quite a rocky journey for some of us; even at our luckiest we’ll have four years of being hot, clumsy, forgetful and volatile.

Can anyone name me a novel in which one of the main female characters is going through the perimenopause or menopause and this is a significant part of the story? (The spellchecker on this site doesn’t even register the word ‘perimenopause’.) I’ve been thinking but I can’t come up with any. Even women don’t write about it much, maybe because of some dim historical memory of being considered ‘irrational’ one week in four and therefore denied the vote. It’s just another taboo, too much icky information, and very little in the way of glamour or heroism. They don’t print t-shirts saying ‘I survived the menopause’ (and if they did, they’d be sold for male partners to wear). And yet it’s such a powerful, vivid experience.

I tend to think that menopause is the emotional last-chance saloon. Any issue that you haven’t dealt with up until now is going to rise up front and centre. My reasoning is that hormones magnify; their task is to take the small thing that bothers you and whack the volume up until your internal ears are bleeding. Denial may no longer be an option.

I saw my reiki practitioner last week, and she was describing the experience of working with a hormonal woman – ‘like she had a thousand volts flooding through her system’ – who was then given HRT: ‘and she was perfectly calm and back to normal; I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.’ So biology is to blame, as it is with chronic fatigue, essentially, but all we have is our psychology to deal with it, in the absence of drugs that is. I’d been talking to my practitioner about my ongoing issues with my eyes, the worsened chronic fatigue and the perimenopause kicking in, and her advice was to focus on three things: 1) empty my brain and try to avoid overstimulation, 2) practice grounding and 3) try and be grateful where possible, alongside any frustrations. So I have been doing those things, and the result has been good; it helps. But my dreams have been much more vivid.

And it occurred to me that my nightmare could be analysed very usefully. I think my deepest fear is that I will escape what is intolerable, only to end up in an even worse catastrophe. This can grind me to a halt, unable to move forward. On a more everyday level, I think my problem is I treat even small difficulties with the things I feel disempowered over but emotionally invested in (my son, my health) as if they had the potential to become a multiple homicide. I do struggle to maintain a sense of proportion in situations that worry me. Mr Litlove thinks that things will just come right, if he watches television until the crisis passes. Whereas I think things will only come right if I throw masses of my energy at them. We both seem to have lived the truth of these beliefs, and we both recognise that, at present, we need to become a little more like the other. Maybe I can use those pesky hormones to motivate me.

Best Laid Plans

If you do not believe in the workings of a thing called fate (which can be tempted), I suggest you figure out a watertight plan and then see what happens to it. Yes, last Sunday’s grand designs rather fell apart this week as both Mr Litlove and I suffered physical setbacks. In all fairness, we had already suffered them when I was typing my last post but we didn’t realise how much trouble they would cause.

The previous week, Mr Litlove had pinched a nerve lifting weights at the gym but he hadn’t thought too much about it and continued as normal. That Sunday morning he had gone out on the river for rowing races, and after a long, cold sit in the damp at the bottom of the reach, he had really hurt himself during the race. The previous week, I had written half of an article on Nobel prize winner, Patrick Modiano, for the lovely Numero Cinq magazine, and then, although I was a little tired on the Saturday, I had gone out to tea with some friends. On Sunday morning I woke with a cold sore and a strangely bloodshot eye. Funnily enough, the same thing had happened to the same eye just after Christmas, but it had calmed down okay on that occasion. I wasn’t really worried, but I made an appointment with my optician just to be reassured, I’d hoped.

It was Mr Litlove who was really suffering. He couldn’t find any position that was comfortable for long and was just hanging on in there until his Tuesday lunchtime appointment with the physio. Tuesday morning we went our separate ways. I knew I was in trouble when the optician started being very kind to me and taking photos of my eyeball. I had inflammatory cells in my eye – they show as just a small white line within the circumference of my iris – and he didn’t understand why. He was going to refer me but after checking with a colleague decided to monitor me instead. The problem wasn’t with my eyesight, but with my health. ‘You must be run down,’ he said. I protested that I couldn’t possibly be as I hadn’t done anything. ‘You’ve got that,’ he said, pointing at my cold sore. ‘And you wouldn’t have it if you weren’t run down.’ I thought I might as well tackle the worst. ‘It’s not that you suspect a brain tumour but don’t want to tell me?’ I asked him. He laughed and said no. ‘You’re just… interesting… at the moment,’ he said. ‘Think of it like that.’

Interesting was what I’d hoped to be about Patrick Modiano; this was very much the wrong kind of interesting. The fact it was so small but obviously a problem was bothering me too. I felt like I’d maybe got a layer of semtex in my brain and this was the first tiny harbinger. I got home and started looking things up on the internet. It was an autoimmune issue, the sensible and accredited website told me. It could indicate – in rare cases – awful things, or something common like arthritis, and it was also a symptom of the herpes virus. I stopped reading there. I thought that would suffice as an explanation, but the situation had triggered my anxiety and I was having a hard time getting it back under control. Then Mr Litlove came in, having been put on the rack by the physio, and he was in awful pain. Somehow we staggered through the day; me nursing an urgent anxiety, him nursing his agonised shoulder. That night neither of us could sleep. I found myself downstairs at 3.30 am nibbling at a (somewhat stale) oatcake to combat the nausea of fatigue, anxiety and low blood sugar while Mr Litlove thrashed about upstairs trying to find a way to lie down that wasn’t painful. At one point, he told me the next morning, he had knelt on the mattress and put his head face down on the pillow, like he was praying to Mecca, and he’d actually lost some time that way; he must have dropped off, that most awkward position being the most comfortable he’d found.

Well, things have improved since then. The optician rang me to say he had done some research and was sure my eye problem was a symptom of chronic fatigue. This was good news in that I could remain with only one big health issue; but it was frustrating how little I’d done to bring it on, after all those autumn months of rest. Mr Litlove managed to get his special painkillers from the doctors and they helped, as did a period of prolonged inactivity. He is moving much easier now, and my eye looks a lot better, just a ghost of a mark that only someone searching obsessively could see.

A couple of days ago we went to do our supermarket trip together, thinking to prop each other up. It was as well I was there as Mr Litlove was quite quickly in pain again (standing, he was only comfortable with his hands on his head, as if he were being taken into police custody); we shopped quickly and came home. It is strange for me to watch Mr Litlove when he is ill. It reminds me that my own cluster of anxieties are not from cowardice or feebleness as I so often fear, but from the experience of chronic illness. ‘Think about how you felt today,’ I urged him, ‘and you can see how I might feel, when every time I go out, I run the risk of feeling bad. If this dragged on for months and years, do you understand how you might come to feel limited? How you might worry about doing anything?’ Chronic fatigue can be a lonely business sometimes, and I so wanted him just to hold this moment and understand, but he only smiled at me as sympathetically as he could, and I knew he didn’t see it at all.

AdamSmithThe real casualty of the past week has been our creative projects. They sit abandoned again. But what kept coming back to my mind was a brilliant book I finished shortly after Christmas, Katrine Marcal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? In it she argues persuasively against the existence of ‘economic man’, the model citizen for all model-based economics. For economic man, everything is a choice; he is rational, selfish, motivated by greed, has little in the way of ethics and wants only to be as rich as possible. He is a ‘bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individual without family or context.’ So no one resembles economic man, apart from bankers and a few under-5’s, Marcal argues. Back in the 1930s, Maynard Keynes thought that economic man modelled the way we would have to behave for a while, to get past the great depressions of that era, but that once we’d eradicated poverty, we could give up such unnatural behaviour and return to loving art, working and earning less, and spending time with those we loved. What happened instead was Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan and neo-liberalism. With the result that, although people do not naturally resemble economic man, this ideology reorganised society in order to force us all to behave like him. The market became all-important, the way we understood and arranged all our interactions – even those like healthcare and education, that were in radical opposition to the way the market functions.

And then human beings became understood as ‘human capital’. Adam Smith first uses the term: ‘People’s education, skills, talents and competencies can, according to Smith, be seen as a form of capital.’ We can be equated to machines, run like businesses, Marcal explains: ‘every person has been transformed into an entrepreneur in the business of selling themselves… Your life is your small business and the capital is, in this case, you.’ So we bear the full responsibility for the outcome of our lives, good or bad, and every decision we make – to do our coursework, to whiten our teeth, to buy a pair of shoes, becomes an investment that may or may not come off. If we think of ourselves as just a piece of human capital, rather than an individual, then we all become very equal, ridiculously equal. ‘The man who waits for his fake documents outside the airport at Dakar,’ Marcal writes is just ‘like the CEO who stretches his legs out in his aeroplane seat to catch a few hours’ sleep before his next meeting on the other side of eight hours in business class.’ The raw material is the same, neo-liberalism tells us: the CEO has just done better with his.

This is complete nonsense, of course, harmful, upsetting nonsense that confuses the kind of equality we need in society with the exact-sameness of two pieces of factory-produced machinery. And yet I was so struck when reading this that I do think this way when it comes to myself. I was a child of the Thatcher era, and I do think I should function just like any other person, that if I invest a certain amount of time in myself, I should be able to produce what I decide needs to be produced. Neo-liberalism changed what it means to be human, Marcal argues, and I do look at myself as an abstract proposition, not as a human who should put the body first because being human is about being in a body before it’s about anything else. Yet what I experience, over and over, is that this new idea of being human breaks down hopelessly when it comes to misfortune and to creativity. (Also when it comes to motherhood, but that’s a post for another day.) In other words, in matters that concern healthcare and education, the two most important institutions in human life to which the most wrong has been done by market-driven economics.

Except perhaps the idea of being human, which should never have been moved away from the immediacy of our lived reality. If Mr Litlove and I want to enjoy our very different life, if we want to create in a way that interests us (not just to pander to some commercial ideal that we care for not at all) because we want to live a simple life that is about a much deeper, richer sense of purpose than earning as much money as possible, we need to think about ourselves very differently too.

 

New Year, New Us

This year I am determined I am actually going to make some changes. Every year it’s the same old resolutions and every year the default setting quietly settles back into place. And it’s understandable when the past three years have been fraught with violent upheaval. I find myself sort of annoyed at the universe for having given us such a persistent diet of unexpected changes, though in all honesty I suppose they were heading our way for a long time in each case. Anyway, it would be nice to focus just on the changes I actually choose, rather than those that have been forced upon us.

The first thing I really want to change is my tendency to book myself up with work and deadlines for months ahead. It’s an old bad habit and I’m tired of it. That means I’ll be cutting right back on reviews. I’ll do a few for Shiny (BookBuzz remains my prime responsibility) and I have a couple outstanding for this month. After that, enough for the time being. So this blog is also getting a shake-up as I’ll be writing here once a weekend and it will be more of a diary format. Given that my activities, such as they are, mostly include reading, there will still be some talk about books.

My related resolution is that I am going to try not to buy any books this year. No, Mr Litlove doesn’t believe I can do it either. And I might not be able to. But shortly before Christmas I began to tot up how many unread books I own and… well, let’s say it’s enough to keep me busy for a while. For years I’ve been a big supporter of the publishing industry, but I think it’s fair enough to let others take on that role while we have no income.

Last year was somewhat hogged by CFS, but the long-term resting strategy that I’ve been following since the autumn is gradually making a difference, I think. If I can keep going with the pacing, and stay patient, I might be able to improve my health significantly. And if I could work again, I have to wonder what I would do. Supposedly, since I left college in 2012 I’ve been devoting myself to writing, but then the past three years happened, and I haven’t had a decent stab at it. So my plan is to give it one last try, one more year, and if at the end of that I haven’t made any progress, then it’s time to think again. I’ve been considering finding part-time work as a counsellor of some kind, probably working with students one way or another. I have lots of experience but no qualifications, and the qualifications are really expensive to get and will mean going over ground I’m very familiar with. Well, we’ll see; it’s a way off yet. But when I think about what motivates me, I realise I have no desire to be an important person, but I really do want to do something that I think is important. I would like to feel useful again.

One way that I can be useful at the moment is supporting Mr Litlove. This is such an enormous change for him, leaving 25 years of life in industry behind to make furniture. This past week he has had a number of moments of – well, I think the technical term here is ‘wobbliness’. I thought back to when I was made redundant from college and what I remember most clearly is Mr Litlove telling me what a fantastic opportunity it was, and me feeling the most disinclination to write that I had ever felt in my entire life. In many ways, this is the sort of moment that I want most to capture. Because we think that when change comes along, or indeed when we try to be creative, it should all be plain sailing. We’ll make progress like people do in the films, when they show that five-minute training montage. But human nature is contrary, and it is complex. I think we seriously misunderstand creativity, what it feels like, what it demands of us, and that’s something I’d like to think about in much more depth. I daresay Mr Litlove will feel rueful about it at times, but he seems to have become my private study support student.

So, to sum up, 2016 is all about a sharper focus for me. I need a sturdy triage system and essentially this means that I’m only doing things that are a) important, b) really interesting to me and c) fun. And I’m going to try to give up feeling guilty about everything I don’t do (you would not believe my capacity to feel guilty about anything) – as if it helps! And I’ll try to keep myself honest and up to the mark in a weekly blog. This year I mean business – at least until the next thing happens to throw us off course!

Eat, Pray, Love

eat pray loveI have so many books in the queue to review that I must try and get through some of them by the end of the year, maybe with shorter reviews than usual. At least when it comes to Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t need to describe the book in any great detail, given I must be one of the last people on the planet to read it. What a strange, hybrid book it is, not in content, I suppose, as Elizabeth Gilbert spends four healing months in each of three different places: Italy, learning the language and eating, India, strengthening her spirit at an ashram and Bali, falling madly in love. No, it’s more the spirit itself that is oddly divided, the subtext that runs through her metaphysical and literal journeys. On the one hand, it’s an uplifting and encouraging book, testimony to the reassuring belief that you can improve your own life with willpower and a bit of luck, and on the other it’s like the worst round robin Christmas letter you ever got, a subtle but powerful piece of competitive achievement-listing, garnished with some implausible self-depreciation. I have no idea how Gilbert managed this, but it’s sort of inspirational and sick-making all at once.

So, where we begin is on the bathroom floor in the middle of the night with Liz having a meltdown because her husband wants children and she doesn’t. This is going to lead to a very unpleasant divorce and, running alongside it, a doomed affair of the kind that is fiercely compulsive but bad for all concerned. Which does indeed sound like a lot of unfortunate events all coming together. However, even on the bathroom floor, Liz finds she has a quiet inner voice of helpful pragmatism that is a kind of outsourcing of everyday divine wisdom. I think that Gilbert doesn’t want to bore us with her suffering – which is admirable of her, I’m sure. I think she doesn’t want her readers to worry about the extent to which we can all lose it magnificently in bad times. She wants to take those readers on a voyage of self-discovery that is essentially positive. But she does keep on plucking herself away from the precipice every time she nears it; she keep rescuing herself one way or another. And so it’s hard to get a clear idea of how bad her bad times have been, and how much is at stake in her decision to devote a year to sorting herself out. I understand that she wants us to know her pain but not to suffer it, but it muddies the water a bit.

Off she goes to Italy, to learn the language and to make new friends, because that is something she does splendidly well (good for her), and the food in Italy is so delicious that it’s enough to get her off medication. Let’s just say that this is not a book I’d recommend for anyone who was actually in the throes of a depression. It’s a most unconventional route back to health. I think maybe she means that some sort of loving self-indulgence, an embrace of things that make you genuinely happy and being generous to yourself with them, is a good antidote for the times when fate has had your back to the wall for what feels like forever. I think?

Then to the ashram where she discovers –  someone who describes herself as bad at meditation – a great capacity for fabulous experiences with the divine. I mean, Liz Gilbert is often very funny at her own expense about the way she tries to avoid all the things she doesn’t enjoy at the ashram, and her descriptions of her spiritual experiences are very well done, very uplifting. I suppose it matters a great deal where you stand spiritually when you come to this section of the book. I tend to be with old Zizek (and Kafka, come to that) that there is a basic need for a Big Other – which might be God, or it might be a parent, or it might be an explanatory system, like science or literature – some major authority to give the appearance that there could be a meaning to life and it isn’t as much of a chaotic mess as it seems on the face of it. All conspiracy theories are essentially a belief in the Big Other, a conviction that someone is in charge and responsible, even though anyone who has worked in an office must surely know the reality of misinformation and total obliviousness that exists between all layers of an organization. Anyway, I digress. I come from a psychological angle, and am sure that after many hours spent in meditation, it is possible to reach new and intriguing states in the brain. Personally, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in any such entity as a god, though I would not for the world wish to offend anyone who did. For whatever reason, Liz leaves the ashram in pretty fine fettle, and the need for balance in life that she had assigned as her task in Bali looks somewhat redundant by now.

Bali is not a place that I want to visit.

It has been estimated that a typical Balinese woman spends one-third of her waking hours either preparing for a ceremony, participating in a ceremony or cleaning up after a ceremony. Life here is a constant cycle of offerings and rituals. You must perform them all, in the correct order and with the correct intention, or the entire universe will fall out of balance.’

Way too much responsibility! Gilbert is enchanted with Bali and wonderfully respectful of its ideology, whereas I wondered how it was possible for a whole island to raise OCD to the level of a religion. Gilbert talks about the charming spiritual beliefs the Balinese hold, like the fact you have four spiritual brothers who are there to keep your back at all times. I have a brother. We are very civilized now, but I remember our childhood, and I think one brother seems quite sufficient for me. I would have nightmares if I thought there were four of them behind my back, and I’ll bet they require a host of ceremonies too. Anyhow, none of this matters anyway as the point of Bali is Felipe, Gilbert’s great romance, and I really can’t be bothered to say anything about that.

No, it’s passages like this that tended to catch my eye:

Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it. If you don’t, you will leak away your innate contentment.’

I’m feeling exhausted already. Happiness, as a form of ultra-demanding work. I’m not sure that I need happiness to that extent. And I have this horrible feeling that bad things happen; they just do. Not because we didn’t work enough at it, or perform enough ceremonies with the correct intent. And I think that sometimes, however hard we try, we don’t master inner peace or find the answers we are looking for. These things are incredibly difficult to do; for most of us, we’ll need a lifetime to reach even a temporary resolution. For those of us with children, which I can understand Gilbert wanting to avoid, given her personal ideology, we just have these hostages to fortune, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

I am surprised at the extent to which this book is marketed as a women’s book, something you give your best friend. Well, if you want to send her the message that she’s been a bit grumpy lately and she should get off her backside and do something strenuous about it, I guess you do. But I would be hesitant to put this in someone’s  hands who had suffered a series of misfortunes, as it says, essentially, that grief,  mourning, re-grouping, life-changing development, all that is just a matter of putting your back into it! Well, ouch. If only it were.

And yet, Liz Gilbert seems to have proved to her own satisfaction that it is. And I do think she means terrifically well in her intentions to hand women back control over their misshapen, misguided lives. Seriously, it terrifies me, how determined she is that we all get back on track and find our personal nirvanas right here on earth. Given that I can’t even manage to write a short blog post when I intend to, I think I might not be the sort of disciple this book calls out for.